A YEAR ago, the Fata administration held a seminar on reforms in a hotel in Peshawar. The governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was the chief guest and the invitees were mostly maliks. The youth of Fata came to know of it and gate-crashed the event, booing the maliks for opposing the reforms recommended by the Sartaj Aziz committee. The event was unceremoniously concluded, and the governor left without ever addressing the seminar.
Referring to this incident, many intellectuals warned that any delay in reforms will increase frustration among Fata’s youth, leading to similar incidents, which may turn ugly at some point. We have witnessed long marches, sit-ins and grand jirgas of various political parties all in favour of reforms, yet have seen no results. Fata’s parliamentarians, political parties, civil society, and particularly the youth have adopted every lawful means to practically beg for constitutional rights as equal citizens. Meanwhile, the government, in its wisdom, has apparently shelved the idea of reforms altogether. Having exhausted all available options, the people of Fata ask: what are we to do now?
With this background, a tsunami of young Pakhtuns have risen up. No one had heard about the Mehsud Tahaffuz Movement (now the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, or PTM) when it organised its long march to Islamabad. The organisers themselves probably did not expect the kind of response they got, with Fata’s youth joined by more Pakhtun youth from KP and Balochistan. The way they staged their protest was impressive, and soon many political parties and civil society organisations wanted to be identified with them, and many leaders visited the sit-in and pledged their support.
PTM came to Islamabad with a few genuine and practical demands. The movement ought to have fizzled out after many of these demands were met, ie Rao Anwar’s arrest (in connection with Naqeebullah’s death), demining the area, replacing Watan cards with CNICs. But others soon joined in, as a reaction to the decades of alienation felt by Pakhtuns in general and those of Fata in particular. The support PTM received within the country and abroad was beyond their expectations. The mainstream electronic media that ignored the Islamabad sit-in has also began giving them space listening to what they have to say. Every individual has his heart-wrenching story and desires a sympathetic ear.
Marginalised youth have found their voice.
Since the Islamabad sit-in, PTM has been holding rallies in Fata, KP and Balochistan (‘southern Pakhtunkhwa’, as they call it). Though their first sit-in and the rallies that followed have been peaceful, many fear they will end up becoming violent. And, surprisingly, Pakhtun nationalist political parties fear them as their replacement and have thus advised their workers to stay away from PTM. But the movement is here to stay. The Pakhtun have found their voice in PTM’s lead anthem, Da sanga azadi da (what kind of freedom is this).
Many believe this is the dawn of a Pakhtun renaissance, as the youth seek to redefine their political status and create a new social contract with the state. Fata’s people in particular have stopped looking up to the recognised leaders, the maliks and mullahs, and have come up with an alternate leadership among the youth. For the first time, someone other than a mullah has been able to gather the Pakhtun under one banner. For too long, they have suffered under the oppressive Frontier Crimes Regulation and militancy. They have seen life down country and the attendant rights enjoyed there, and will not settle for anything less.
The Pakhtun are in pain and they need to be comforted. The political parties shouldn’t view them as rivals; rather they should join their voice for a just cause. The mature leadership of the political parties has the ability to steer the youth away from harm’s way. Left on their own, already frustrated and feeling like the government does not care, they may turn to violence. Anger has been building, and like Naqeebullah’s murder, any event can ignite this tinderbox of seething anger.
So when PTM holds its grand rally in Peshawar, scheduled for April 8, those in power have to be careful. The use of brute force can turn the movement into a revolt. And third-rate politicians should not be pitted against them to brand them as traitors and foreign agents. There should be no attempt to sabotage the rally; they must be heard; they have not made a single illegal demand.
For 15 years, the government has been fighting against extremist militants, yet the war is far from over. No war can be won without the support of the people, and our state is far from winning the hearts and minds of the Pakhtun youth in general and Fata youth in particular. The government, instead of ignoring these protesting Pakhtuns, ought to embrace them.
The writer is a former bureaucrat and author of Cheegha, The Call.
Published in Dawn, April 3rd, 2018